Values matter: What you can learn from The Best Companies to Work For

By Gregory P. Prastacos, Dean, School of Business, Stevens Institute of Technology

As a source of resilience and basis for unity, corporate values will be gaining more significance in the post-COVID workplace. Going forward, they will be even more essential in attracting and retaining talent, increasing employee engagement and driving performance. And what a better place to look for values that drive a successful culture than Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”? What are the values of these companies, how are their values described and how do they put them into practice?

Our recent study, with Pete Dominick, Dimitra Iordanoglou and Dick Reilly, just published in the Journal of Business Ethics (here), addresses these questions. By examining the 62 companies that have consistently (2014-2018) made the list, we identify their values, the way these values are expressed and how they are put in practice. Given their importance in strengthening a company’s culture, I thought I’d share some of the key findings from our study, to get you thinking about the values in your organizations, how you express them, how your organization’s values fit with respect to the ones at the best companies to work for, and how you can benefit by making your values more values-at-work.

1. Look yourself in the mirror. Most organizations in the sample had between five and nine values. Our study identifies 24 key values; the top five are excellence (82%), client-driven (77%), integrity (76%), teamwork (74%) and professionalism (69%). Other values include: People first, continuous development, respect, innovation, corporate citizenship, commitment, profitability, diversity, trust, engaging workplace, efficiency, open communication, networked, reputation, fairness, strategic, agility, and more. At Stevens, our strategic plan is driven by the following aspirations: Student centricity, excellence in all we do, impact through collaboration, technology at our core, and strengthened reputation and prestige – hitting a number of the popular values above. How does your organization’s values compare to the ones in the Fortunelist? Are the differences just in the words, or do they reveal gaps that could undermine a success culture?

2. Pay attention to how you express your values. The study identifies different ways that these values are expressed across the companies. For example, for every variation of the word “excellence” in corporate values there are different ways of expressing why excellence is so important in business, or how it is achieved. Three examples:

You can make a strong statement about your company through how your values are expressed. For example, Stevens’ “excellence in all we do” leaves no doubt about the importance of this value in the institution. Does your expression of values accurately (and succinctly) correspond to the message you wish to convey?

3. Make sure your organization’s values are well-balanced. Through a series of statistical analyses, the study provides evidence that the values fall into three categories:

Think of this kind of balance in your organization’s values, thus also making it easier to describe and pursue them.

4. Communicate and demonstrate in practice the values that are important to You. In the companies studied, senior leaders convey an authentic commitment to specific values and make talking about them a priority. Sometimes they emphasize the ways in which their companies were founded around specific values, and how they continue to reinforce them. Do you make it a priority to talk about the values you consider important, and be consistent when doing so? We found that even though organizations’ values remained fundamentally unchanged, the way they are expressed has been regularly revisited to correspond to changes in the environment – the same way that their strategy and the demands of their business evolve. We also found that leaders’ commitment to their values is also demonstrated by HR practices, such as in the selection screening process, in rewards systems, and in the organization’s training programs.

5. Seeing is reinforcing. Policies and initiatives are important for driving values, but our research suggests more subtle day-to-day interactions can be even more effective. It is through what people actually experience that reinforces their belief in the organization’s values. Storytelling can play an important role in communicating these values and how they were put in practice, along with techniques that will facilitate this communication – like a mentoring system, or having new hires sharing an office with more seasoned employees. Do you implement such techniques in your organization? Do you have a mentoring system that helps new hires better understand your organization’s values? Do you celebrate or reward the demonstration/implementation of the values by your employees?

I would be interested to hear from other leaders. What are the values that matter most in your organization? Which of the practices described above do you use to put values into practice? What else not described above do you do? Where have you succeeded — or struggled — to envision and implement values that create impact? How do you make values a core consideration in both big decisions and daily routine? I’d love to hear what you think, so please drop me a line or comment, and let’s keep the conversation going.